OHS Remembers Dorothy Duncan (1927-2023)

The Ontario Historical Society celebrates the life and accomplishments of Dorothy Duncan, OOnt, Former Executive Director of the OHS and lifelong champion of Ontario’s history and heritage.

The Ontario Historical Society (OHS) mourns the passing of Dorothy Duncan on August 29, 2023, and wishes to celebrate her life with the many organizations and people she has touched in her lifetime. Dorothy’s impact on the OHS and on the landscape of Ontario’s history and heritage over her long and accomplished career cannot be overstated, and we wish to highlight some of her many accomplishments.

Former Executive Directors Dorothy Duncan and Rob Leverty met in Orillia on March 25, 2018, to catalogue and package Dorothy’s donation to the OHS Library.
Former Executive Directors Dorothy Duncan and Rob Leverty met in Orillia on March 25, 2018, to catalogue and package Dorothy’s donation to the OHS Library.

Dorothy’s connection to the OHS spanned more than 50 years. She first became a member in the 1960s when she became Curator of Black Creek Pioneer Village and continued as a member throughout her tenure as Curator of Historic Houses for the Toronto Historical Board (1971–1973), Curator of the Peel Museum and Art Gallery (1973–1975), Museums Advisor, Province of Ontario (1975–1980), and Supervisor of the Museums Section, Ministry of Citizenship and Culture (1980–1982).

Dorothy was hired as Executive Director of the OHS in 1982, following her work for the Ministry. In the spring 1982 OHS Bulletin, OHS President Alec Douglas welcomed Dorothy with the following announcement:

We carried out an extensive search for a replacement and were exceedingly fortunate to obtain the services of Dorothy Duncan. Our new Executive Director comes to us from a senior position in Ontario’s Ministry of Culture and Recreation. She is perhaps better known than any other single person in the province’s heritage movement, and has for some time been closely associated with the causes pursued by the OHS. Our future with such dedicated and capable help is bright indeed. We welcome Dorothy with open arms.

As Executive Director, Dorothy oversaw the OHS’s move to its current headquarters at the John McKenzie House in Willowdale, the incorporation of numerous new affiliate members, cemetery defence against development, and so much more. In 1989, a new award named after her was established as part of the OHS’s Honours and Awards program: the Dorothy Duncan Award. Its first recipient, the Latchford/Montreal River Heritage Preservation Project, was recognized the following year.

Dorothy resigned as Executive Director in December 2001 to begin her retirement, but continued as an active and engaged Life Member of the OHS. In 2018, Dorothy donated her entire library of over 700 books on Ontario’s history to the Society, which makes up a significant and valuable part of the OHS’s library collection, as well as her collected papers and speeches.

Outside of the OHS, Dorothy was an accomplished public historian, researcher, and author—with a particular focus on Canada’s culinary history and the everyday life of people in Upper Canada. In recognition of her work, she received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Waterloo in 1996, the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Preservation of the Heritage of Ontario in 2001, the Order of Ontario in 2003, and the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

Endlessly supportive of the OHS and the preservation of Ontario’s history, Dorothy requested that upon her passing, donations be made to the OHS in lieu of flowers. This was incredibly generous. The OHS staff and Board of Directors are extremely grateful to Dorothy and her family for this wonderful expression of support. Thank you to all those who made donations in Dorothy’s memory.

On behalf of the Ontario Historical Society and its grassroots membership across Ontario, the staff and Board of Directors send our deepest condolences to Dorothy’s family, her colleagues, her friends, and everyone mourning the loss of a powerful champion of Ontario’s history and heritage. We thank her for all she did in her amazing career, and celebrate the impact her legacy will continue to have on the next generation of history leaders.

This tribute was originally published in the OHS Bulletin, December 2023, page 3.